Book review: Understanding Christian Leadership (Ian Parkinson)

It seems almost to have become a commonplace that anyone writing a new book on Christian Leadership should begin with some form of justification for their work. Since it seems as though ‘of the making of leadership books there is no end’ (to borrow from Ecclesiastes) writers seem to think they need to defend the fact that they have chosen to add to the pile! So it is that Ian Parkinson begins by acknowledging the rich array of available resources and asking why add ‘yet another one’.

The excellence of his book answers the question!

If you are a student of Christian leadership I’d advise you to clear some apace on your shelves for what is a masterful piece of work that combines a breadth of academic knowledge with a genuine spirituality, seasoned with the lessons of practical experience. If you are a teacher of the subject (as I am) this needs to be on your reading list before classes resume in the autumn!

The book falls into two main sections (each consisting of five chapters): one is more theoretical and the other more practical. Homileticians will appreciate the alliteration of three of the five chapters in part one in which explore the themes of desiring, defining, and distrusting leadership. The other two chapters in the section provide theological meat, as they examine the theme of leadership in the Old and New Testaments.

Chapter one (‘Desiring Leadership: why leadership matters) sets out the case for leadership by discussing what happens when it is missing, and setting out what the author describes as ‘the goods of leadership’. These he defines as sense-making, animation, alignment, problem-solving, and hope. There is also a brief – but important – excursus on leadership and ministry, terms the author believes need to be distinguished.

Chapter two (‘Defining Leadership’) acknowledges the complexity of leadership (‘a multifaceted phenomenon’), given the differences in context and perspective, along with a temptation towards oversimplification. The author then proceeds to survey a range of theories, breaking them into three broad classifications: leader-centred theories, relationship-centred theories, and an approach that sees leadership as a social process.

Chapters three and four then move to a biblical discussion of the theme, first exploring how leadership is presented in the Old Testament and then how it is presented in the New. The chapters are not always watertight as some of the themes that are discussed under the rubric of the Old Testament (such as shepherd, or servant) are not exclusive to the OT, but are also found in the NT, not least in the ministry of Jesus. The NT chapter includes a series of studies on various words that are used to describe early Christian leaders (and, interestingly, some that are not), and these are grouped under three functions: exercising oversight, which includes the work of the elder and of the bishop (there is an interesting discussion on the nature of the overlap between these terms), representing Christ, and animating the body. Chapter four also includes a valuable reflection on a series of core theological themes (creation, incarnation, trinity, pneumatology, and eschatology) suggesting how each of these ought to inform Christian leadership.

By the end of chapter four, the author is ready to present his definition of Christian Leadership:

A relational process of social influence through which people are inspired, enabled and mobilized to act in positive, new ways, towards the achievement of God’s purposes.

Chapter five, the final chapter in the book’s first section acknowledges that for all that might be said about the desirability of good leadership, it is, as Justin Lewis-Anthony has claimed, ‘at best, a contested concept and at worst a dangerous, violent and totalitarian heresy’! The chapter discusses a couple of philosophical and moral reservations before setting out three theological reservations, including the claim that secular theory emerges from a context whose purposes are at odds with the purposes of the Christian Church.

It’s a minor point, but it would have been interesting to see some interaction with the work of Arthur Boers in this chapter: Boers has recently wondered whether Christians are guilty of a ‘faddish fascination’ with leadership.

In part two, the author turns to focus on more practical matters (not that there is no practical outworking of what he has presented in part one, or that part two is suddenly light on theory or in its interaction with academic sources). Five topics are grouped under the heading ‘the work of leadership’.

The first of these discusses leadership and organisational culture. Be ready for a discussion that goes a bit beyond the homely definition of culture as ‘the way we do things around here’. The author points us to the work of Schein who identified three levels of culture: what we see in an organisation’s artefacts, the level of espoused beliefs, and the group’s underlying assumptions. While leaders do not necessarily stand outside of culture in order to change it, they have the possibility of shaping their organisation’s culture through modelling, explaining, exposing dysfunction, inviting participation, and reinforcing.

The next aspect of the leader’s work is the task of ‘animating the body’ (a concept already introduced in chapter four). I had been struck quite early on in the book how fond the author is on the idea of the leader as a catalyst, and that idea is developed in chapter seven, with both theological and practical considerations presented, as well as an honest acknowledgment of reasons why the empowering of leaders does not happen. Three priorities are suggested for leaders: they need to establish a ‘development culture’, cultivate a vision for ‘whole-life discipleship’, and devise a strategy for leader development.

Chapter eight deals with the task of ‘fostering collaboration‘ and includes detailed discussion of the concept of teams, and thoughts on the place of conflict, noting the differences between affective, procedural, and substantive conflict (the third is valuable, the first is not!).

The final task is that of discerning direction in which the author discusses vision and direction. I posted on Twitter (probably only slightly tongue in cheek) that a mark of a good book on Christian Leadership is that it manages to discuss the concept of vision without misapplying Proverbs 29:18! It’s something that irks me, possibly more than it should, but thankfully this book manages to avoid the trap (the author is careful in his use of Scripture throughout). There is a useful discussion of the life-cycles of organisation and the steps that need to be taken to avoid terminal decline – something that easily follows on from a period of stability, and the section on identity, purpose, and vision is concise and very helpfully presented. Borrowing from Kotter, the author suggests that a church’s vision needs to be imaginable, desirable, feasible, focused, flexible, and communicable. Another helpful aspect of this chapter is the discussion of the correlation between levels of involvement in shaping vision and levels of commitment to the organisation.

The final chapter is a short discussion of ‘the spirituality of Christian leadership‘: what is it that makes leadership Christian? For while much of the application in the book relates primarily to leaders in a church context, the book recognises that Christian leadership is not limited to such. In fact several of the case studies that come at the end of each chapter are drawn from the world of secular and organisational leadership. The reflections in the chapter are based around the message of Paul to the Ephesian elders in Acts 6.

Perhaps what most distinguishes Christian leadership from any other form of leadership is the understanding that it is received from God as a gift.


One of the great strengths of the book is its thoroughness. The author demonstrates a considerable grasp of a wide range of relevant contemporary scholarship on the subject of leadership. Clearly he has thought long and often about the range of questions that the discipline throws up.

Not that the book is a simple regurgitation of secular theory seasoned with an isolated text from Scripture here and there in order to justify the title! There is frequent engagement with Scripture in both Old and New Testaments, ranging from theological reflection to the use of biblical narratives to illustrate a point begin made.

While the book is far from being a collection of thoughts on ‘what I have learned about Christian Leadership by being a Christian leader for 30-odd years’, the author makes careful use of his own experience in a way that demonstrates that leadership has been far from a merely theoretical subject for him. The practical side of the book is also served by the list of case studies that are included in each of the main chapters: these range from a vicar revitalising an inner city church in the Everton district of Liverpool (no mention of the football team), to a consultant psychiatrist developing the work of a Mental Health Trust.

It’s hard to quibble with much in the book, but if I was pushed I’d perhaps mention that much of the application is worked out in an Anglican context. This is quite understandable, given the author’s primary sphere of work with CPAS and the Church of England training colleges. This is a small point, but I wonder if the book’s appeal might be extended in a future edition that aims to draw on some more non-Anglican examples. My free-church friends need not be put off – they may even enjoy the discussion of elders and bishops!

I think the best compliment I could pay this book is to say I wish I had the capacity to write it! I’d have to agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury whose foreward describes it as a ‘tour de force’.


Ian Parkinson is a leadership specialist with CPAS and a visiting lecturer at several Anglican training institutions. He has previously appeared on the podcast and you can catch up with his story here and here. You can order your copy of the book here.